Besides reaching the knockout stages of the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time on foreign soil, Korea Republic have set another record by scoring five times in the group stage – their highest tally in eight appearances on the world's greatest football stage. And remarkably, in a tournament short on dead-ball excellence, three of these five goals have come from free-kicks with the other two arriving after they capitalised on their opponents' mistakes.
It helps that coach Huh Jung-Moo has three dead-ball specialists at his disposal. Promising midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng earned a reputation for his fearsome shooting during Asian Zone qualifying, while left winger Yeom Ki-Hun is a designated taker of free-kicks on the right side of the area, having underlined his influence at the 2008 East Asian Championship. For his part, forward Park Chu-Young has a deadly right foot as Nigeria have already discovered to their cost.
In the South Koreans' Group B opener against Greece, it was Ki, the Celtic starlet, set the ball rolling with a low delivery from the left into the path of Lee Jung-Soo, who was left with a simple job of tapping the ball in at the far post. Ki and Lee then combined for an almost identical opening goal against Nigeria on Tuesday, when Ki curled a free-kick to the far post where the Kashima Antlers centre-back volleyed home an equaliser for his second goal of these finals.
The reason why we can't see many goals from free-kicks in this tournament is that players are not accustomed to the ball and the altitude.
"Actually during the team training session before the game, the set-piece didn't work as well as we'd planned. So Sung-Yueng and I took some more time to practise it just between us," Lee told FIFA a day after he helped his country advance to the last 16. "As we had practised a lot on headers following free-kicks, I tried to head the ball at first when it came to me but somehow it fell to my foot and I was able to score a lucky goal."
If Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chung-Yong finished well when scoring against Greece and Argentina – both players profiting from some sloppy defending – arguably the finest strike yet by a South Korean player was Park Chu-Young's free-kick against Nigeria. After his unfortunate own goal in the 4-1 drubbing by Argentina, he redeemed himself with a superb free-kick to put his side ahead in the second half against the west Africans. The Monaco marksman curled the ball around the wall and into the right corner of the net to put his side ahead. It put Korea Republic 2-1 ahead and they eventually held on for a 2-2 draw that booked their passage to the Round of 16.
"We've worked a lot on set-pieces, and Chu-Young was appointed to take the free-kick from that particular spot," coach Huh said, who had some interesting observations about the role of the Jabulani ball. "When you kick the ball with power it goes well over [the goal] most of the time. So I told him to hit the ball with more precision than power. The reason why we can't see many goals from free-kicks in this tournament is that players are not accustomed to the ball and the altitude."
Korea Republic's dead-ball mastery will be put to the test in their last-16 encounter with Uruguay. It may be the only way through a defence yet to concede a goal in the competition.